WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum stepping down puts a big question mark on Facebook's data policies with regards to the messaging app

WhatsApp founders leaving the company speaks volumes of Facebook's data policies and where it's headed.


The writing was on the wall.

A month after one of WhatsApp's co-founders Brian Acton called for #DeleteFacebook, the other co-founder Jan Koum announced his resignation from WhatsApp earlier today through a Facebook post.

WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum stepping down puts a big question mark on Facebooks data policies with regards to the messaging app

File photo of Jan Koum: Image: AFP

"I'm leaving at a time when people are using WhatsApp in more ways than I could have imagined. The team is stronger than ever and it'll continue to do amazing things. I'm taking some time off to do things I enjoy outside of technology, such as collecting rare air-cooled Porsches, working on my cars and playing ultimate frisbee," said Koum in his resignation post while assuring that he would continue to cheer for WhatsApp, 'just from the outside'.

Not just another resignation

While on the surface it may seem like just another CEO moving on from a company he founded, there is a lot more to it. According to a report by The Washington Post, the real reason for Koum's departure was disagreement with parent company Facebook over data policy and its insistence on using personal data and weakening WhatsApp's encryption. It looks like Koum isn't just resigning as CEO of WhatsApp, which he and Acton sold to Facebook for a massive sum of $19 bn back in 2014, he will also be stepping down from Facebook's board of directors, according to the report.

According to people familiar with the matter, Koum had made his intentions clear to senior executives at Facebook and was even seen less frequently at WhatsApp's office on the Facebook campus.

WhatsApp and data protection

Both Acton and Koum have been data privacy proponents. In fact, Acton even invested $50 mn from his own pocket in Signal, an app with a very secure end-to-end encryption protocol that's also used by WhatsApp. The WhatsApp co-founders had both promised that even after the acquisition by Facebook, they would protect user data. WhatsApp added end-to-end encryption in 2016 to further cement its resolve.

But over the years, we have been seeing how Facebook wants to get WhatsApp user data and use it to its advantage. There were changes made to WhatsApp's terms of services in 2016, to allow sharing of user data between WhatsApp and Facebook, including user phone numbers, devices they are using, operating systems on which the app is running and so on. Naturally, not many users were too kicked about this, leading to courts in France, Germany and Britain ordering and fining Facebook for going ahead with this.

In India, as early as 2016 the WhatsApp - Facebook case had been heard in courts, but unlike the UK and EU, which have data privacy laws in place, no such ruling was arrived at in India. According to courts, if users were not happy with WhatsApp sharing data with Facebook, they could delete the WhatsApp app from their devices.

Cyberlaw expert Asheeta Regidi had noted, "India, on the other hand, has no dedicated data protection law. India’s sole privacy legislation is the Information Technology (Reasonable Security Practices and Procedures and Sensitive Personal Data or Information) Rules, 2011. These rules serve only to protect the use and disclosure of ‘sensitive personal data’. This is a closed list of information, such as information of a person’s identity, financial information, health conditions, biometric information, etc. The vast troves of data in the possession of Facebook and WhatsApp, such as messages, photographs, contact lists, etc., do not fall under the category of ‘sensitive personal data’. Thus, even though WhatsApp would be sharing one category of sensitive personal data, the user’s identity, for the most part, the IT Sensitive Data Rules do not apply."

The concern users had was Facebook was using WhatsApp data to map user identities to their phone numbers. According to The Verge, senior Facebook leadership was also gunning for a unified user profile across all Facebook platforms so that the combined data could be used for ad targeting as well as suggesting friends based on WhatsApp contacts on your phones.

Clearly, all was not well in the WhatsApp - Facebook marriage.

Reuters.

Reuters.

Cambridge Analytica data scandal and WhatsApp's no-ads policy  

While it may seem that Koum's resignation must have come as a response to the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, that's not really the truth. According to insiders who spoke to The Washington Post, Koum had made up his mind before this scandal came to light.

The Cambridge Analytica data scandal has just put the spotlight on Facebook, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg had to rightly face the music on either side of the Atlantic. Zuckerberg was grilled for close to 10 hours by the US Senate as well as the House and here's a list of all the things he promised to fix.

Unlike other properties of Facebook, WhatsApp messenger is one of the most popular social platforms around with close to 1.5 billion users — a majority of them coming from India. Given their thoughts on user data protection, both Acton and Koum have some sort of respect among WhatsApp users. With Facebook, that is certainly not the case. In fact, the report states that Facebook executives wanted to make it easier for businesses on the Facebook platform to use its tools, which could lead to a weakening of the encryption on WhatsApp, something that must not have gone down well with Koum.

Unlike Instagram, WhatsApp has still managed to stay away from bombarding its users with any form of advertising — a promise its founders had made even after the acquisition by Facebook. With WhatsApp Business now active in India, and expected to roll out globally as well, one wonders how long it can hold on to the no-advertising philosophy. This is even more important now that none of WhatsApp's data-privacy loving founders are around to keep tabs on WhatsApp? Considering that WhatsApp does not charge its users any fee either, monetising the platform is still a big question mark for its parent company. A question it's trying to answer with unsavoury data sharing measures, which have rightly faced opposition.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company’s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. - HP1EE4A1JLL6O

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company’s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, US, April 10, 2018. Image: Reuters

The road ahead

WhatsApp Business has already begun in India, and it is being speculated as one way for the platform to make money. But in order to incentivise more businesses to start using WhatsApp as a platform to reach out to their customers, Facebook will need to provide insights. And this can be done only if there is some level of user data access. How Facebook plans to do that in the post-Cambridge Analytica data scandal era remains to be seen.

Zuckerberg's comment to Koum's post was interesting and carefully worded, to say the least.

"I’m grateful for everything you’ve done to help connect the world, and for everything you’ve taught me, including about encryption and its ability to take power from centralised systems and put it back in people’s hands. Those values will always be at the heart of WhatsApp," said Zuckerberg, which seems more like an attempt to allay any fears regarding the core philosophy of WhatsApp in a post-Koum and Acton era.

It's being speculated that Neeraj Arora, who has been associated with WhatsApp since 2011 (before Facebook acquired it) could be replacing Koum as the new CEO, according to TechCrunch.

Irrespective of who is heading WhatsApp, the news that of its founders leaving the company (with one of them even going to the extent of calling for #DeleteFacebook and investing $50 mn in a rival messaging app) speaks volumes of Facebook's data policies and where the company is headed.

We all surely dread the day when our WhatsApp messenger screen will resemble the Instagram timeline, where every few posts are interspersed with advertisements. Unlike Instagram — which has been completely gobbled up by Facebook, WhatsApp has pretty much stuck to its original avatar while adding new features over the years and managing to stick to the promise of offering an ad-free experience.

With Acton and Koum no longer heading the product, however, I wonder how long this will last.

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